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An 'insect apocalypse' may be upon us — here's what you need to know

"It's one very small fraction of bugs causing problems."

“It’s one very small fraction of bugs causing problems.”

Photo Credit: iStock

You might have heard that insect populations are declining. But at the same time, it seems like mosquitoes are everywhere. 

While trying to eradicate them with candles, bug zappers, DEET-infused repellants, and chemical fogs, it turns out we've been making the problem worse. 

An opinion piece by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank explains that we have worked so hard to rid our homes and yards of mosquitoes and other bugs, (through activities like dousing the grass with chemical sprays and tirelessly raking and bagging fallen leaves), that we have created an "insect apocalypse" in which only the hardy survive, such as the aggressive, disease-carrying mosquitoes that feed on humans and pets.

An "insect apocalypse"

The insect apocalypse is full of nuance, but there is no doubt that many populations of vital species are in decline, as the BBC reports. 

By destroying the habitats of essential insect populations — such as beneath fallen leaves — as well as killing them with insecticides and disrupting ecosystems with warming temperatures and pollution, we've dramatically reduced insect biodiversity. 

While critical pollinators like butterflies and bees are dying, pesky bugs like mosquitoes flourish. 

Milbank notes that the problem is most apparent in urban areas and in dense population centers. 

Less urban places enjoy more balanced ecosystems where "a more robust and diverse insect population means fewer pests," Milbank says. Areas with greater biodiversity maintain a healthy food web in which frogs, fish, and birds help keep the number of mosquitoes in check.

Research shows that warming temperatures and dryer environments, such as those in areas experiencing drought, can affect the behavior of some mosquitoes, making them more aggressive and likely to transmit diseases.

Why should you care about bugs?

Fewer pollinators and more aggressive, disease-carrying mosquitoes pose existential problems for humans. 

Dramatic losses in insect populations could threaten crop pollination and endanger nature. 

As the World Food Programme points out, increased food scarcity could exacerbate conflicts, disrupt the global economy, and plunge millions more into hunger, worsening existing crises.

According to NPR, important causes of decline across insect species include land development, pesticide pollution, and rising temperatures — all human-driven problems. 

Entomologist Akito Kawahara explained to the Washington Post that bugs have a PR problem that needs to be addressed to reverse this troubling trend. 

"The problem is most people think everything bites, but in reality 99% don't," Kawahara told the Washington Post. "It's one very small fraction of bugs causing problems."

How you can help insects recover

We can help insect populations recover with a few low-effort changes. As Kawahara says, we need to rethink our relationship with bugs, focusing on the benefits they bring us, such as supporting the food web, pollinating flowers and produce, and keeping the planet habitable for us. 

Voicing support for policies that protect vital species can go a long way, but some of the best ways to help insects require little to no effort. 

Let wildflowers and native plants grow, let the lawn go a little wild, and skip the chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Consider mulching, and as Milbank advocates, don't bother raking those fallen leaves, because they can provide valuable soil nutrients and habitat for helpful insects.

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